The Collected Letters, Volume 1


TC TO JOHN FERGUSSON; 22 October 1820; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18201022-TC-JOFE-01; CL 1:284-286.


Annan, October 22 1820.

My dear Fergus[s]on,— I delayed writing to you chiefly for the old reason—want of anything to say; and I have begun to write not because that want is at all sufficiently supplied, but because I would not vex your mind by unfounded suspicions that absence and oblivion are interchangeable terms in my vocabulary, or that the light of two months' experience has shown me any flaws in your character to the prejudice of our wavering though agreeable correspondence. I prize the frankness of your procedure in writing a second time; there is so much of the counting-house in formal regularity, one likes to see a friend's letter sometimes want the ‘I duly received your valuable favour, dated, and so forth.’ It is not my inclination to put your generosity often to such trials; but I promise you the present exercise of it shall not be thrown away.

The first letter, written late, appears also to have lingered long on the road. It reached me while in the heat of managing a small concern, which not long after called me into Yorkshire; and I wilfully delayed sending an answer, till, the affair being finally adjusted, I might have it in my power to communicate what seemed then likely to produce a considerable change in my stile of life. The matter I allude to was a proposal to become ‘a travelling tutor,’ as they call it, to a young person in the North Riding, for whom that exercise was recommended, on account of bodily and mental weakness. They offered me £150 per annum, and withal invited me to come and examine things on the spot, before engaging. I went, accordingly, and happy was it I went. From description, I was ready to accept the place; from inspection, all Earndale [Euredale?]1 would not have hired me to accept it. This boy was a dotard, a semi-vegetable; the elder brother, head of the family, a two-legged animal without feathers, intellect, or virtue; and all the connections seemed to have the power of eating pudding, but no higher power. So I left the barbarous people—kindly, however, because they used me kindly, and crossed the Sark,2 with a higher respect for our own bleak fatherland than ever I had felt before. York is but a heap of bricks; Jonathan Dryasdust3 (see ‘Ivanhoe’) is justly named. It was edifying to hear the principal of their Unitarian College4 lament the prevalence of mysticism in religion; and as to their newspaper editor, though made of lead, he is lighter than McCullogh's5 little finger. York is the Boeotia6 of Britain; its inhabitants enjoy all sensual pleasures in perfection; they have not even the idea of any other. Upon the whole, however, I derived great amusement from my journey. I viewed a most rich and picturesque country. I conversed with all kinds of men, from graziers up to knights of the shire; argued with them all, and broke specimens from the souls (if any), which I retain within the museum of my cranium for your inspection at a future day.

It is scarce a week since I returned from this expedition; and now my plans must all be altered. If I come to Edinburgh, which seems likely, few manuscripts will accompany or follow me; no settled purpose will direct my conduct, and the next scene of this fever dream is likely to be as painful as the last. Expect no account of my prospects there, for I have no prospects that are worth the name. I am like a being thrown from another planet on this dark terrestrial ball, an alien, a pilgrim among its possessors; I have no share in their pursuits; and life is to me like a pathless, a waste, and howling wilderness—surface barrenness, its verge enveloped under ‘dark-brown shade.’7 Yet hope will sometimes visit me, and, at the worst, complaint is weak, and idle if it were not. After all, one has a desperate struggle—and for what? For the bubble reputation,8 that we may fly alive through the mouths of men, and be thought happy, or learned, or great, by creatures as feeble and fleeting as ourselves. Sure it is a sorry recompense for so much bustle and vexation. Do not leave your situation, if you can possibly avoid it. Experience shows it to be a fearful thing to be swept on by the roaring surge of life, and then to float alone —undirected on its restless, monstrous bosom. Keep ashore while yet you may; or, if you must to sea, sail under convoy; trust not the waves without a guide. You and I are but pinnaces or cockboats yet; hold fast by the Manilla ship; do not let go the painter, however rough and grating.9 I am sorry you are tired of anatomy, and such things. I am tired too, but that does not mend the matter. Yet trust the best; nec deus intersit [let no god interfere]10 is indeed true, naturally as well as poetically. Yet in spite of this, all things will and shall be well, if we believe aright. I designed to tell you a long tale about my most neglected studies, but I have no room. I have lived riotously with Schiller, Goethe, and the rest. They are the greatest men at present with me,

I am yours affectionately, /

T. Carlyle.